Understanding the 7 principles of PRINCE2

PRINCE2® is one of the most widely known and established project management approaches. Organisations can use the methodology to:

  • Help deliver projects on time and on budget;
  • Increase the return on investment on projects; and
  • Manage risks in line with their risk appetite.

Also, because PRINCE2 focuses on customer needs, it ensures that organisations deliver an effective product that satisfies its users.

The approach integrates four different elements to form a comprehensive framework: principles, themes, processes and tailoring.

We look at the first of those elements in this blog, discussing the seven principles key to a successful project.

1. Continued business justification

The first principle states that projects must make good business sense. In other words, you must be able to demonstrate that the time and resources required to complete a project will be worth it – either because the project meets an essential need or because it offers return on investment.

For a project to be justified, it must be:

  • Desirable: are there significant benefits to the project?
  • Viable: are you able to deliver the product in question?
  • Achievable: will the project result in the expected outcomes and benefits?

The word ‘continued’ is important, because these are questions you should ask not only at the beginning of the project but also throughout its implementation.

2. Learn from experience

Has your organisation attempted a project like this before? If so, you should have a lessons log that contains summaries of those projects, which you can use to inform future plans.

PRINCE2 also states that project managers are responsible for identifying and disseminating lessons that they can learn from the current project. These should be documented in reports that are distributed to appropriate parties.

These reports are useful when auditors assess whether the organisation’s approach to project management meets the requirements of PRINCE2. One of the things they will look for is whether the quality control process was adapted based on the lessons learned by the project management team.

3. Define roles and responsibilities

Everyone involved in a project should have specific roles and understand their responsibilities.

If everyone knows what’s expected of them, the project has a much greater chance of success. By contrast, confusion about what should be done and by whom will lead to delays.

This is most likely to be an issue if there is a lack of clear leadership. An effective project will have a management hierarchy, with the project board at the top, followed by the project manager and team managers.

4. Manage by stages

This principle states that each stage of a project must be planned, monitored and controlled.

PRINCE2 adds that all projects must contain at least two stages. The first is the initiation stage, during which the project is planned, followed by at least one stage that covers the delivery of the project’s products.

At each stage, the project board must evaluate progress and determine whether the project is still viable.

These boundaries enable the board to control the project on a stage-by-stage basis while delegating the practical steps to a project manager.

To help the project board make its decision, the project manager should provide updates at each stage, outlining the results and forecasts.

5. Manage by exception

A project that’s running as intended won’t need much intervention from the board. Ideally, the board should only be consulted when absolutely necessary.

To help achieve this, organisations should set thresholds (or ‘tolerances’) regarding progress, with the project board only informed when these are exceeded.

The tolerances relate to each project objective (time, cost, quality, benefits and scope).

The project should also define the limits of delegated authority so that it’s clear who has the authority to make a decision about corrective action if the project exceeds those tolerances.

By taking this approach, the project board ‘manages by exception’. In other words, it only gets involved when key decisions must be made. This reduces the need for regular meetings between the project board and the project manager, and allows progress to flow without requiring frequent consultations.

6. Focus on products

Everyone involved in the project should know at the outset what is expected of the product. After all, the work you do should always be performed with the project requirements in mind.

Product-based planning helps reduce the risk of scope creep, and ensures that issues such as acceptance disputes and user dissatisfaction are spotted early on and addressed.

Part of this process involves developing and agreeing upon product descriptions, which ensure that everyone on the team understands the product’s purpose, composition and quality criteria.

Descriptions also help the project team estimate how much work will be involved, and what resources and activities are required.

7. Tailor to the environment

Projects should be scaled and tailored to the organisation’s requirements. The final principle explains how this works and the benefits.

PRINCE2 recognises that no two projects are the same. Each has specific levels of complexity, scale and risk, as well as different cultural contexts and geographical location.

For example, one aspect that is often tailored is the schedule for project board meetings. Such meetings aren’t a requirement – thanks to principles 4 and 5 (manage by stages and manage by exception) – but in many organisations, regular meetings are a part of the corporate culture.

Indeed, with organisations increasingly adopting remote working practices, meetings (whether in person or virtual) are a good opportunity for team members to catch up and explain the work they have been doing.

Organisations that tailor their practices must document those changes and describe them in the project initiation documentation. This enables the organisation to audit its practices effectively and demonstrate its compliance with PRINCE2.

PRINCE2 in Action – Project management in real terms

You can find out more about PRINCE2 and how you can get started by reading PRINCE2 in Action – Project management in real terms.

The book follows PRINCE2’s principle-based approach to project management, guiding you through each step of your project and how those principles apply, and demonstrating that effective project management doesn’t need to be complicated.

As the author, Susan Tuttle, explains, the book “show[s] that some of the more complex concepts can be readily understood by breaking them down and presenting them in stories that are relatable to everyone.

“The book uses real-world scenarios from personal projects like a wedding to more work-related projects such as IT and websites.”